AUTISM AND OUR SCHOOLS amid Growing Numbers Diagnosed with the Neurological Disorder, Families Question How Duval County Educates Their Children

Article excerpt

When 9-year-old Harley Sheffield began biting his lip and smearing the blood on himself at his Jacksonville school last spring, his pediatrician said the school needed to provide the boy his own aide.

That seemed to work.

Harley, who has autism, stopped trying to harm himself. He also came home with wet pants less often, which his mother took as a sign he was being escorted to the bathroom more regularly.

This school year, inexplicably, Harley has no aide. And a recent evaluation at Nemours Children's Clinic found the child regressing in some areas of development.

"Basically, he's warehoused in the classroom, and that's that," said his mother, Michele Sheffield.

"I'm not expecting him to be a brain surgeon or to go to college. But if he could learn to go to the bathroom, to use a fork and spoon, and communicate with me, I would be happy."

The Sheffields are among a handful of families who, aware of a decade of research showing that autistic students can improve with intensive early instruction, are challenging how Duval County educates autistic children. One family has filed a lawsuit.

Duval has 270 students who have autism as their primary disability, an increase of about 55 percent in five years. Statewide and nationally, the number of autistic children is growing -- a trend attributed mainly to improved diagnosis, according to experts.

Yet, critics say, the school system has no standards for teaching autistic children.

The school system provides inadequate staff and materials and doesn't require teachers or aides to get training in methods to improve autistic children's behavior, communication and learning skills, according to Tad Delegal, the Jacksonville attorney who filed the lawsuit.

"Who cares if you're giving somebody an aide if the aide isn't trained to do anything?" asked Delegal, a parent of an autistic child.

"They label the classroom 'autistic.' It could be labeled the 'ice cream truck' classroom and it wouldn't mean anything different. You could call it 'Harvard University.' So what? It's not."

Mark Cashen, Duval's director of exceptional student education, said he is prohibited from speaking specifically about any child. But he said he has asked the Florida Department of Education to review how Duval teaches autistic students. The state visit is expected this spring.

"Really, it's because of what parents have been saying," Cashen said, citing the lawsuit over 6-year-old Elizabeth Popp, one of Harley's classmates at Pinedale Elementary School.

"It's led us to say, 'Let's take a look at this.' I really think the state's going to be a big help to us in determining whether we're on target or not," Cashen said.

Lauralyn and John Popp, who live on the Westside, filed the federal lawsuit in January, claiming the school system is violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Public schools are required under the act to write and follow an individualized education plan for every child with disabilities.

The Popps had worked out a plan for Pinedale Elementary to give Elizabeth an aide and administer a program similar to one she had received at a private school the Popps said they could no longer afford.

The suit alleges the school system is not meeting its agreement. The autism classroom's teacher never got training in the program. And the Popps claim an aide trained at their expense was not given the supervision the program requires.

That aide and another have since left the classroom. Elizabeth has had no aide since January. The family is asking the school system to fund her education at a private school in Arlington, called The Jericho School, until Duval officials can provide a comparable program.

Cashen declined further comment on the Popp case.

Pinedale Principal Margaret Kring also declined comment.

LACK OF TRAINING

According to the state Department of Education, public schools must provide autistic students specially designed instruction; train teachers to provide the unique services identified for each student; and provide reasonable class sizes and adequate funds for materials and training. …